Who fancies to
have a Revolution here?
The Opal Revisited (1851-1860)
Keywords: Liberation movement, Rights, Advocacy, History, Electroconvulsive Treatment (ECT), The Opal, Utica State Lunatic Asylum, Public Mental Health System
At the outset, Reader, please know that I entered academia ‘out’ as someone who has survived psychiatric treatment throughout childhood and escaped its bonds in early adulthood. I am very much in this work and the connections, misconnections, and disconnections that I have with individuals – and even total systems – influence it. As a white woman, I am well aware that if I were perceived as ‘the other’ or in some way seen as a ‘threat’ that I might not have had the access to do much of what I have been able to do, though at times, I clearly have been stopped.
Context for work
In conversations with Eva Dech and Dally Sanchez, two advocates and activists for human rights in ‘mental health’ from Westchester, New York, I simply asked, “What was it like?” in reference to their experiences of being institutionalized as minors. It inspired my initial thinking on how people frame their experiences of institutionalization. Environmental Psychology is the lens I am often looking through and in other work I am doing I address this in depth. At the cue of “what was it like,” three major categories emerged with next to no probes. They are the ecological and the psychological environments of the institution (Barker, 1968) and its treatment milieu (King, J. A. and Smith, C. G.,1972). Themes that crystallized as both Sanchez and Dech shared their personal experiences included rights, advocacy, support, education, abuse, family, and staff. A companion piece to this current work contains an analysis of this using an environmental approach, heavily steeped in systems theory (Bronfenbrenner, 1977).
Construction of this paper
With my bias and the context for this work clearly stated, I will proceed with a note about the design of this paper. First, this is an introductory article to a series of articles that include theoretical underpinnings, deep qualitative analysis including discussions on race, class, and gender, and epistemological and ontological issues the work generates. As there is a wealth of information, it can at times be confusing. Because there is prerequisite knowledge to truly understand the meaning of what we, in New York are uncovering, you need to know a little bit about what we are doing and who we are. ‘We’ in this sense are those who have been involved with ‘Can You Dig It?’ – a participatory action research project with emancipatory underpinnings (Creswell, 2003). I am coordinating this project as part of my field research in the doctoral program in Environmental Psychology at the Graduate Center, City University of New York.
The Opalians and Their Opal
Some of the participants in ‘Can You Dig It?’ have unofficially been
calling us Opalians. However, we are just learning of who the real
Opalians from the 19th Century were - the writers
and editors of a monthly publication called The Opal 
which was ‘dedicated to
usefulness.’ At the close of its second year The Opal had more than
1,000 subscribers. General
categories of writings that can be found on The Opal’s pages include:
The more than 3,000 pages of The Opal are in ten volumes, each with twelve issues, except the last, which ends with the fourth. The Opal was printed and published at the Utica State Lunatic Asylum, in Utica, New York. As this institution was the first State-operated Lunatic Asylum in New York, there is a wealth of information (read: control) about its geography, architecture, construction, design, philosophy, implementation, and to some degree, evaluation. The asylum is now called Mohawk Valley Psychiatric Center. It remains a state-operated institution regulated and evaluated by the State Office of Mental Health, which had also been known as the Commission on Lunacy, just post-Opalian Time. It is important to note that The Opalians in addition to writing and editing The Opal were also the inmates of the Utica State Lunatic Asylum. While the building the Opalians lived in is no longer operational, (though recently renovated), Old Main still stands on the institutions’ expanded campus.
Can You Dig It?
‘Can You Dig It?’ is my attempt at working with others who are
advocates and activists for
human rights in ‘mental health’ to unearth this buried treasure. I have
found myself saying, “This
is a project that lives or dies by people’s participation.” At this
point in time it is alive and
kicking. I would like to thank all of the people, organizations, and
institutions involved in this
research thus far and welcome newcomers. In this paper and its
companion pieces you will hear
many types of voice:
A Movement of Many Names
Another thing you should know is that for the better part of fifteen
years I have been working
with others to change the ‘mental health’ system. ‘Mental health’ is
often in quotes in this work
because I defer to the Declaration of Principles (1982) from the Tenth
Conference on Human Rights and Psychiatric Oppression that suggests
‘mental health’ is jargon
for those things psychiatric. Attempts to stop the abuses that people
face are continually being
made by many dedicated survivor-activists. As a people, we are:
The one thing all of the different factions of this movement seem to agree on is that restraints should not be used, because when we all got together and said the same thing, we were listened to (see Activism below). I hope that I have given you enough grounding to really understand the contemporary and historical relevance of The Opal (1851-1860) and to have it effect you in much the way it has effected many of us who are involved with this Movement of Many Names.
I first learned of The Opal in 1999 while tagging along on a field trip to the warehouses of the New York State Archives with Darby Penney, Peter Stastny and others from the Bureau of Recipient Affairs while I was working for the New York State Office of Mental Health. The stories that Penney and Stastny constructed is a powerful piece of work that introduced many of us in the Movement to think about our history and make it present (www.SuitcaseExhibit.org). It was during this trip to the Archives that we were informed that journals from the 1850s had been discovered.
Fast forward to 2005:
The Mental Patients Liberation Alliance’s 25th Annual Bastille Days Demonstration and Celebration in protest of Electro Convulsive Treatment (ECT) would have me fasting on the East Lawn of the State Capitol Building in Albany, New York for eight days. In response to our actions, the Office of Mental Health allowed John Allen, Director of Recipient Affairs, to publish a Guidance Memo on the use of ECT, severely limiting its use on “competent” adults. One small step in the right direction, many in the activist community continue to hail it as a win for human rights in the ‘mental health’ system. It had always stuck in my head that The Opal was at the State Archives Library, in Albany, which conveniently were across the street from the encampment. As the archives are open to the public I made an appointment to view what I thought would be penned journals of inmates from the 1850s. Reader, imagine my surprise (and delight) when I found 10 printed, bound books!
This time that I spent with The Opal (1851-1860) was precious to me. I laughed. I cried. I became enraged and then inspired. I had a-ha moment after a-ha moment (Agar, 1990) as I made deep, internal connections to what I was reading. In reading through The Opal, I pulled 138 separate instances of connections I made with common language or themes of the Mental Patients Liberation Movement today. My a-ha moments include the discussion of forced treatment and the goals of liberty, medications and alternatives, mechanical restraints and seclusion. “Pills vs. Bleeding” was the name of one poem, “Junk Bottle” another. Peer support was not discussed, though the term 'fellow feeling' was repeated throughout the books. The importance of Hope and even how to attain Recovery was discussed by my “Brother and Sister Lunatics” from over a century and a half ago. Examples of categories of writing in the second volume, for me, include Governmental Control; Movement; The effects of the Opal; Slavery and Racism; in the form of Essays; Poetry; Literature; Communications; Artwork; and Theory.
One of the first things that caught my eye and shook my understanding of the work I do every day is this paragraph:
Wonder what the world would say if we took fancy to have a Revolution here? Still, we are a little too sensible just at the present to wish for any other than the ‘established order of things.’ Perhaps our views may change on this point, and we may at some future date, go in for the enlargement of our personal liberty . . . Well for our part we are willing to leave off without putting our publishers to the trouble of finding another editor, just to perform so easy and yet not so very easy a part of our office. (Editor’s Table, The Opal, 1852. Vol. 2, No. 1, p. 28).
In 2005 Mind Freedom International, of which I am a member, put out a call for a ‘”non-violent revolution in mental health” without ever knowing about the above call for “Revolution” by the editor of The Opal in 1852. Reader, please understand, I do not mean that The Opal influenced the survivor movement – or that The Opal influenced Mind Freedom – or even that The Opal influenced notions of a non-violent revolution. What I am saying is that just as there was a call for a Revolution in 1852 there was a call for a Revolution in 2005 and whether it be a century and a half ago or today – those who are or have been captive, when given the ability to publish materials – use it to call for Revolution.
Without a doubt in my mind this passage from The Opal was a clear message that the same fight we have to fight to have today – to have a Revolution – inmates fought to have then (Rissmiller and Rissmiller, 2006; Oaks, 2006; Emerick, 2006; Blanch and Penney, 1995). I was so surprised to learn that a century and a half ago the inmates had an “office”! Not just a physical space but also a political place. Today, those in these very same types of positions, “offices” are in the very same situation, limited by what they can say if they wish to maintain their jobs. Having written for and/or edited several patient, survivor, and recipient newsletters myself, I have experienced this exact type of censorship (Seaview Times, 1988; Enter Stage Left, 1995; the New York State Office of Mental Health’s Bureau of Recipient Affairs’ Newsletter, 1999). So I asked myself, and I ask you the reader: what kind of censorship is it to withhold the literature, poetry, political commentary, and thoughts on those things psychological from all of the generations that have lived and passed since the 1850s? Am I having a unique experience – or would others in similar roles as mine in the advocacy and activism communities also see The Opal as a treasure?
At the close of my week at the Archives in 2005 I felt that the time had come to revisit the Editor’s question of 1852, and I fancied to see if others would join me in this way: to have a Revolution here and “go in for the enlargement of our personal liberty” (p. 28). This hidden treasure made me want to act and do something that calls attention to the evidence for the liberation of mental patients by mental patients that is more than one hundred and fifty years old. It made me want to know how other activists and advocates involved with the liberation movement of people who are being oppressed by psychiatric systems will confront it and use it. Equally interesting to me is discovering the process of participation. How does the participation of people who have survived experiences in the psychiatric system – and are now involved in the policy, planning, implementation and evaluation of services provided by the New York State Office of Mental Health – effect the environments in which they operate now, then and in the future?
Some members of The Alliance (of which I am the former Chair of the Board of Directors) also value The Opal and got involved with the design of the research, including making the application to the Graduate Center’s Institutional Review Board. The interest for some members of The Alliance stems from another ironic twist – the organization’s Head Quarters are in Utica, New York, where in addition to a support center in the community, they have an ‘Advocacy Office’ inside the walls of the very institution where The Opal was printed, now, Mohawk Valley Psychiatric Center. Some people feel that these books are part of The Alliance’s history, across space and time, as if an heirloom has been found which has spurred an interest in the planning, implementation and evaluation of this project.
The Constructive Action
In developing a question for this research I relied on Audrey Cohen’s dimensionalized approach to taking a constructive action (1978), which is the basis for both my undergraduate and graduate training and much of my thinking. This holistic method is both non-traditional and transdisciplinary as it requires those taking action to examine theory from a variety of perspectives. Reader, my questions are thus: is this significant, that for a century and a half inmates, in whatever terms you choose to use, who are allowed to produce materials published by their captors, have always been restricted to some degree as to what they can print and say? Am I having a unique experience or do others see value in The Opal ? Do others share my belief that The Opal is evidence of a liberation movement of the 19th Century that still resonates today? The overarching question for this participatory action research has been: How do advocates and activists for human rights in ‘mental health’ confront The Opal (1851-1860)?
Though it was deliberate to not collect demographic data at Bastille Days, in future studies that will change. Because I have met and worked with each of the participants I can say from a qualitative stance the participants of this project thus far have not been homogeneous in age, race, class, gender, or experience. The youngest participants are just under 25 and the oldest declined to report his age, but assured me he was well over 70. Nearly all of the people who participated were institutionalized. Several were not institutionalized but had histories with various psychiatric systems. These experiences, each of them pointed out, even though not institutionalization, were enough to spur a lifetime of advocacy and activism to make change. Some of the participants had been involved with forensic psychiatric systems and others were compelled to comply with psychiatric treatment both in institutions and in the community. Even though each person had their own individual story, I do not believe that there is enough diversity in the participants thus far and I strive to ensure multiplicity in future work. The Hudson River and Central Regions of New York State were clearly present in the research. This is good as the institution is in the Central Region. The North Country and Out West were all but absent. Long Island and New York City both had small representation. Increasing other parts of the State’s involvement in future planning and actions is sure to increase diversity.
The Opal (1851-1860) was the main artifact that people examined.  Historical searches at the Oneida County Historical Society, Landmarks Association, Utica Public Library (where a selection of the books can also be found) and the Internet ensued.
Citation Forms to collect “a-ha” moments participants had while viewing The Opal were used as a way to collect information people found in the books, to go back and analyze it in a deeper way. Each individual’s citation sheets guided the interview. Video is used as a research tool and has been most helpful in capturing the process of participation (Chapin, 2004; Lunch and Lunch, 2006)
Participants were recruited at the 26th annual Bastille Days celebration and demonstration with the Mental Patients Liberation Alliance on the East Lawn of the State Capitol Building in Albany, New York from July 8-16, 2006 where a call for a ban on the use of shock treatments on children was made, though not met. Through torrential rains and sweltering heat, demonstrators at Bastille Days’06 held a fast (some for ten days) to call attention to children’s issues and break the silence about psychiatric oppression. Attendees were mostly people who had psychiatric histories as well as their family members and friends. Some people who work for the Office of Mental Health and other large entities snuck in to say hi, but their presence really could not be registered.
This participatory action research project exposed activists and advocates who have a history with a psychiatric system to The Opal. Photocopies of Volumes 2-10 of The Opal were made available to participants at Bastille Days ’06. Participants, four at a time were also given the opportunity to go across the street to the New York State Archives’ Reading Room to look through the actual books, though none did, possible reasons to be enumerated in a future analysis. I want to keep asserting that the continued input and direction of all of the people who have been involved moves this project – or halts it.
The goal of the research was to have people look through The Opal and see if they had a-ha moments (Agar, 1990) as I had, talk with me and each other about what they were experiencing and determine if there were any actions that could come out of this. Once people had access to the same information I had access to I was raised to the level of participant. All participants gave written consent prior to the start of their reviewing The Opal and being videotaped. Participants were given the option of being a part of videotaped interviews both as individuals and in a group setting. As added protection, following Chapin and Turan's (2005) model, there was a separate release form for use of video footage in which participants appear.
Participatory Action Research
As much of this process is about Participatory Action Research as it is about The Opal and learning more about how to coordinate, participate, and evaluate action research – particularly if it has emancipatory underpinnings (Cresswell, 2003). To that end, I am appreciative to all of the people who helped with both the plan for the research design, its implementation, and evaluation. With those who consider themselves Opalians, I share a certain bond. Though there is not the space to include my thoughts on this challenging and creative response to dealing with what happens when you move research out of a sterile laboratory and bring it into the it in the field this process is one that deserves attention (Lewin, 1943; 1951). In other work I take time to review this and a history of Participatory Action Research, as it certainly is not new. I think it is a smart method and I intend to always use it. I grapple with its implications and the challenges it presents, particularly with the addition of video as a tool (Lunch and Lunch, 2006). The idea of asking people who are affected by a situation to help evaluate and improve (or dismantle) it goes back at least to Aronovici’s Housing Studies in the early 20th Century (1939). Lewin made participatory action research a reality (1946, 1948). Alinsky (1971) championed this process of people organizing together to get rid of four legged rats so they can move on to getting rid of the two legged ones and cautioned that the “real radical, doing ‘his thing’ is to do the social thing, for and with people” (p.xix). In the past decade or two, it has become unacceptable, in some circles, to not include those affected by the design of programs, buildings or institutions in their creation. Of course, I also want to know what happens as the method further evolves and more participants become researchers (Campbell, Ralph, and Glover, R, 1993; Ralph, 1997).
Field notes and my private journals have been essential to me being able to capture my thoughts and experiences as I have moved through this process. Sometimes I used mapping techniques – often it was in the form of watching where the waterproof bin full of the photocopies of The Opal was and what (or sometimes who) was on top of it. As a Participant Observer I often found myself in situations that I wondered how different would this be if I were not there? Was I pushing the conversation too often toward the project? Was I available enough to those who wanted to talk right then? If I was eating (and not fasting) would I be more observant? Would I observe other things? Self-questioning was a big part of my process. The process which Agar outlines of the Breakdown, Resolution, Coherence happened repeatedly through this project, which was as much about doing the research, as getting to do the research and even more about evaluation.
Video as a Research Tool
David Chapin, my advisor at the Graduate Center, and I have discussed many of the benefits of using video to capture the process. To a large degree having people determine where and when they wanted to be interviewed has been crucial to people feeling comfortable to be videotaped. Following the model that Chapin uses in video research, participants enter into an agreement to be videotaped with the understanding that s/he can see the footage of her/himself and delete any sections that s/he is not comfortable with. Additionally, there is a release form to be signed prior to use of the material. It is a double protection as there is an added sensitivity that many need to be concerned about and sometimes momentary fragments, or sound bites, can be taken out of context or misinterpreted, so this method of review and release is an added protection to people who are giving of themselves for this effort. I would like to thank Stephanie Orlando for her work on this project. She has been behind the camera, shooting the video, for a large part of this effort. At some future date a video of this effort will be available.
With participants who consented to be involved in various levels of the research I was able to capture 18 hours of video footage, 57 citation sheets of a-ha moments participants had while reading through The Opal (1851-1860), twelve non-recorded interviews ranging from five minutes to over one hour, 1 in-depth one hour long audio taped interview and 11 video taped interviews, 4 under five minutes and 7 in-depth conversations over 35 minutes long. While I collected all of this information, the analysis of this paper relies heavily on the 7 in-depth video and 1 audio taped interviews.
Results And Discussion
It is important to note that the results and discussion that follows is preliminary. A deeper analysis of The Opal is currently being made concerning its implications on the Modern Day Human Rights movement in ‘mental health’. Topics covered include participants initial responses to The Opal, evidence of a liberation movement from the 19th Century, common language that can be found by participants in the books to language they currently use, the level of true editorial control the Opalians had, ways of improving this research in future rounds, potential future involvement with the research and any actions that The Opal has inspired. We believe that this analysis serves as a good example of the groundwork for future efforts.
First Round Findings – The Interview Questions
If there were an Opal today, would you read it? Be involved? All of the participants said they would read it – though how regularly was debated. Almost all of the participants said that they would want to read an un-edited, non-government controlled publication that dealt with the real issues – not an advertisement for an institution, as some of the participants saw the publication. Joe Quinn points out research he found doing an Internet Search about The Opal (Eannace, 2001) that explained that writing was seen as a therapy in the era of moral treatment and that patients were encouraged to explore issues of the day. Gayle and Tim both want to be involved in the effort, Gayle stating passionately, “I just want everyone to know about this and anything I can do to get it out there I will do”. Robert Greystone also said that he would write for a publication.
Actions it makes you want to take? Deb Baker states, “I want to show these Opal journals to not only the people who live within the system but the people who work within the system and let them see what’s possible. Let them see how people respond when they’re treated better, when they’re treated as people with dignity, respect and kindness and let them see that that works and not what we’re doing today.” Gayle Almond wants to tell the world about them. Angela Cerio sees them as a tool to move the movement forward.
Examples of Questions Generated:
Over the course of the summer information about The Opal and other writings by those considered “Lunatics” from the latter half of the 19th Century was used. There is not room to deal with these actions here but my larger work explains how William Trull (1891) said the time in which he lived would be known as the Dark Ages and the era he lived through would be known as the “Black Period”. Sadly, he talked of many of the same things advocates and activists rail against today.
Dramatic Readings and
Several of the participants said that they wanted to create arts and entertainment around the books. One participant, still a beatnik, wrote a most eloquent response to lines in Volume 3, in a section which Eannace addresses in her groundbreaking dissertation on the Lunatic Literature. Dramatic Readings of poetry, such as Pills vs. Bleeding or Starlight, that Deb Baker pointed out of a woman who she assesses probably could not sleep and was writing poetry in the middle of the night by the stars. Also found was a Journal of Insanity from 1852 and comparisons between the two books are being made by Tim and others. Participants in these events could also share their personal writings, arts, music, or other creative expressions.
A Research Conference on The Opal
Pending IRB approval, we are planning a research conference entitled:
The Opal (1851-1860) Revisited: Policy, Planning, and Practice Implications for Public and Private Psychiatric Systems which is to be held in Utica, New York in the near future in celebration of Pinel's birthday. The Opalians hailed Pinel as a liberator, "allowed to anticipate the day" by Asylum administration and held celebrations on his birthday. Pinel, who is known for his role in moving the world toward more humane treatment with the radical ideas of talking to inmates and freeing them from shackles to the walls in the 18th Century, was credited with creating the waistcoat, or as we know it, straight jacket, which was banned in New York in 1999, largely due to the work of Darby Penney and others on the New York State Restraint and Seclusion Task Force (State Policy, PC 705). The Conference will encourage dialogue between those who use or have had psychiatric treatment and those who provide, direct or create such services. To foster a historical perspective and to encourage discussion, conference participants will receive randomized selections from The Opal in advance. Pending Institutional Review Board approval, I look forward to a good research conference that asks hard questions concerning the implications of The Opal on policy, planning and practice for pubic and private psychiatric systems in the near future. A report will be made shortly after.
I am not having a unique experience. The Opal (1851-1860) exists and tells of a people who are very much like the people who today are locked away in institutions and in the community struggling for their liberation and basic human rights. Advocates and activists for human rights in ‘mental health’ who read these books and learned about their history overwhelmingly see it as evidence of a liberation movement dating back to the middle of the 19th Century that discusses the liberation movement of people thought of as insane from the 18th Century. More often than not people who are introduced to The Opal want to learn more about it and to a lesser degree, get involved with current actions, though some definitely do and more are welcome. The writings of the institutionalized, deinstitutionalized and reinstitutionalized in the modern day movement talk of tortures in the form of treatments, applications, and control mechanisms (Kalinowski and Penney, 1998; Chamberlin, 1990, 1998; Bassman, 2000; Deegan, 1990, 1993; Tenney, 2000) the same as the alienated did a century and a half ago (The Opal, 1851-1860; Davis, 1855, 1860; Chase, 1868; Trull, 1891) and we believe this is significant. I think that what has been presented here is a good grounding for the work that is being done and that will evolve out of it. I hope that we will find more people who want to get involved. I close with a question posed by one modern-day Opalian, Gayle Almond. She wants to know, “Is there an Opal in your future?"
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 David Oaks, an advisor to this project from Mind
International suggested that I make
the distinction that this Opal is not Opal Whiteley, a hailed Oregonian
who ironically published a
Journal of her experiences and was tortured and died in a psychiatric
 Eannace’s groundbreaking dissertation on the
has been most helpful in
deciphering The Opal and its context.
 The Opal also exists in two other editions, first a patient written and edited version printed by Utica State Hospital in the 1950s, which was the first evolution of the Asylum. Staff at times wrote the second version of The Opal and other times patients. It was printed from 1978 - mid 90s at Mohawk Valley Psychiatric Center.
This project would not be in any way what it is without the participation and support from participants, advisors, organizations and institutions that have supported it. David Chapin, my advisor has been a constant source of support through this work and I am eternally grateful for all he has taught me. Cindi Katz and Susan Saegert's support and guidance through the early days of this work and Setha Low's assistance with analysis were much appreciated. I am sure I would not be here without the support of my colleagues, especially Martin Downing Jr., Kimberly Libman, and Jennifer Gieseking. As part of this action, I reached out to The Bureau of Recipient Affairs, New York State Office of Mental Health. The Bureau finds value in the Opal and hopes to reproduce sections of the Journals and disseminate it to people who have used mental health services in the near future. The Utica Public Library, Oneida County Historical Society and New York State Archives have also been quite gracious with access to their archival materials concerning the Utica State Lunatic Asylum. Additionally, Timothy Potts, Ph.D. at Mohawk Valley Psychiatric Center has been most helpful and welcoming. Deb Baker and I had the opportunity to begin discussions about a potential research conference with people in Utica, NY. I have also contacted the Institutional Review Board that oversees Mohawk Valley Psychiatric Center to begin discussion for any possible requirements concerning the research conference. A special thanks to the members and staff of the Mental Patients Liberation Alliance for their time, space and most of all contributions to this work. With those who consider themselves modern-day Opalians I share an extraordinary bond.